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Misapplied Faith


By Scott Bradner


This column will be published the day before the Presedential election in the U.S.  I hope that all of you who have registered to vote will do so and I hope that the predictions of a multi-month period of confusion before the winner is known prove to be overly pessimistic.  I also hope that the worries about chaos, or worse, fraud with electronic voting machines also prove to be overly pessimistic.  But even if the latter is the case this time I think it's only a matter of time before a crisis erupts in this area unless some basic changes are made.


Things have not gotten much better since I last wrote about this topic.  ( In fact things such as the Pentagon's ill-fated vote-by Internet project ( and the testimony by state elections officials in California and Florida show how hard it is to get officials to admit that there any possible problems here.  Too many of these officials seem to be far more interested in simplicity than in accuracy or security.  In addition, not a small number of them seem to be very interested in covering their tail after they believed the marketing hype from the voting machine vendors and bought millions of dollars worth of products that many observers are now questioning.


Someday I do expect that a way will be figured out to support secure and reliable voting over the Internet that will, at the same time, preserve the secrecy of the vote.  But, I expect that will take quite a bit of time to work out and even longer to convince people that it actually meets the criteria.  Until then those of us who actually vote (not enough do, by the way) will have to go to a polling place or get an absentee ballot somehow.  When doing so too many of us will be confronted by repackaged PCs masquerading as voting machines.


Since June the New Your Times has been running a series of editorials about voting in the U.S.   ( The editorials, 19 to the date of this writing, covered the gambit of voting related issues (including some disturbing reasons why some election officials might be so willing to defend voting machines ( ).   Demonstrating the importance of the issue, eight of the editorials concern electronic voting or voting machines.


The latest editorial provides a roadmap of what congress should do to "give us the democracy we deserve."  (  Most of the specific suggestions deal with voting process rules but the last one calls for safeguards on electronic voting: "Mandatory safeguards, including a paper trail, for electronic voting. Election officials like to say that electronic voting is as secure as it can be, but that is false. Nevada regulators, for example, impose far more stringent checks on slot machines than any state does on electronic voting. Congress should impose much more rigorous safeguards, including a requirement that all computer code be made public. It should require that all electronic machines produce a voter-verified paper trail."


I hope that Congress pays attention to these recommendations.  Maybe, four years from now, we will be able to go to the polls and not have to rely on the same kind of faith in trusting the machine we vote on as we have to in trusting the people we vote for on the machine.


disclaimer:  I expect that Harvard's school for studying faith (the Divinity School) does not deal with faith in computers but I did not ask and the above is my own view.